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Monday, May 22, 2017


Retreading Rahm

by Tom Sullivan

Democrats may be "rolling in cash" going into the 2018 midterms, but they'll need more than money to produce the Democratic wave they last saw in 2006. They'll need vision and a message. Republicans are awful isn't the message. Voters already know that.

Politico's coverage this morning suggests Democrats are rolling out a retread of Rahm Emanuel's 2006 strategy, even sending senior House Democrats to Chicago to seek Emanuel's advice:

“In 2006, there was a similar landscape, where Republican-controlled majorities in the House and Senate refused to do anything to hold George W. Bush accountable,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, one of the three Democrats planning the Chicago trip. “The 2006 blueprint will have to be updated and reloaded to reflect the environment of today, but there are some lessons that can be learned.”
Democrats haven't even finished learning their lessons from 2016. But it's easier to skip over them and party like it's 2006. Organizing For Action (OFA) wants to target Republican “Rubber Stamp Reps,” echoing Emanuel's 2006 effort to name a Republican “rubber stamp of the week.” Firedoglake organized in 2006 to send congressional Republicans actual rubber stamps reading Rubber Stamp Republican Congress. Cute stunt. But in 2018 will it move voters? Did it in 2006?
“The future, in a presidential election, a statewide election, or a congressional, is in the suburbs, where more moderate voters exist,” Emanuel said in last week's episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “I purposely recruited candidates who reflected the temperament, tenor and culture of their district. I didn’t try to elect somebody that fit my image. I tried to help elect somebody that fit the image and the profile of the district.”
To repeat: "Democrats rely on polling to take the temperature; Republicans use polling to change it." Democrats chasing public opinion aren't leading, they're following. Voters elect leaders, not followers. Emanuel's strategy turned candidates in the districts he selected from Democrats into Republican-lite. It boosted Democrats' numbers, but only over the short term. Where are the Blue Dogs now? That's what comes of chasing public opinion rather than molding it.

Emanuel's more conventional strategy of targeting swing districts received far too much credit for the sweep in 2006 and Howard Dean's 50-state plan too little. Dean put 3-4 professional organizers on the ground in states where Democrats were not considered competitive. What happened?

Governing looked back at Dean's strategy in 2013:
Here's how the Democrats fared in the reddest of red states between January 2005 and January 2009, the period when the 50-state project was in operation:
  • State House seats: Net gain of 39 seats, a 2 percent increase of all seats in the states analyzed
  • State Senate seats: Net loss of two seats
  • Governorships: Net loss of one
  • Attorney generalships: Net gain of one (elected seats only)
  • U.S. House seats: Net gain of three seats
  • U.S. Senate seats: Net gain of one seat
  • Presidential performance: In 15 of the 20 states, the Democratic nominee saw an increase in vote share between 2004 and 2008. In three other states, the vote share remained constant. It dropped in only two states.
Perhaps not so impressive until one considers the states in question were Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. So what happened after Barack Obama pulled the plug on 50-state?
Now let's compare this record to the one between January 2009 and January 2013.
  • State House seats: Net loss of 249 seats, a decrease of 13 percent of the existing seats in those states
  • State Senate seats: Net loss of 84 seats, a decrease of 12 percent
  • Governorships: A decrease by half, from eight governors to four
  • Attorney generalships: A drop by two-thirds in elected AGs, from nine to three
  • U.S. House seats: A 40 percent drop, from 44 seats to 26
  • U.S. Senate seats: A drop from 11 seats to 8. (It could drop further by 2014: Of those eight remaining seats, three senators are retiring and another three face tough reelection contests.)
  • Presidential performance: Only two of the 20 states (Alaska and Mississippi) saw higher support for Obama in 2012 than in 2008. In most of the 20 solidly red states, Obama's 2012 vote fell back roughly to John Kerry's level from 2004.
Altogether, these post-2009 declines are, to put it bluntly, pretty catastrophic. In these 20 solidly red states, the Democrats controlled 13 legislative chambers in 2005, a number that fell to just three in 2013. Of the 40 chambers in these states, only two experienced a net gain of Democratic seats between 2005 and 2013; in the other 38, the Democrats lost ground.
Of course, that analysis fails to account for the backlash to Obama after 2008 and other factors. The South has some stiffer challenges, but those libertarian-leaning red states in the Great Plains and the West, and Montana currently, each get representatives and senators too. The map is the math. Rebuilding decayed party infrastructure builds the Democrats' bench. Shaving the margins out there is a win if it helps tip the balance in Congress and if Democrats take back legislatures from which future governors and congress members arise.

For years, however, Democrats have rarely had time for it. Dean got that. It is disheartening to think the DCCC is going back to Rahm's playbook. There's never enough time to rebuild, but always enough time to throw on another patch. The question that Dean's tenure as DNC chair posed was, do you expand the party by winning elections, or do you win elections by expanding the party? Detroit's resurrection didn't come from selling more of the same old cars. It came from selling better-designed cars made in newer factories. That takes investment. As Governing observed, Dean's experiment demonstrated how "modest investments in party infrastructure can pay tangible dividends -- and how those dividends can disappear once the investments dry up."

This is the most important election of our lives, as I heard once again at a dinner over the weekend. They say it every year. That's why all the party's energy and all its fundraising goes towards next November and never towards the two or three after that. It's a fundamentally defensive strategy.

If you don't show up to play, you forfeit. It's one thing Democrats do well.